The myriads of problems facing Nigeria make it so easy for a typical writer to secure ingredients for a weekly column. It must however be quickly added that this is also a potential drawback as the turn-over of ‘writable topics’ is so high that a writer may also become lost in the maze of such ever-changing issues of the moment. As I was getting set to ‘throw my hat’ into the electronic voting debate ring, I received calls from my associates at home that they witnessed a strange occurrence in many parts of Nigeria – that electricity supply appeared to be getting stable. Just as I was thinking that I might have to adjust my original piece to accommodate this new information and perhaps asked that readers report the situation at their end, Sanusi Lamido declared his intention to correct the tiny little problem with the cashless economy – how to ensure looters can escape cashless policy without going about with bulky cash. I was still digesting the implication of this when Dr. Reuben Abati woke up and without any provocation, took to pages of newspapers to demonstrate that there is an attack sabre-toothed tiger that can match claw for claw every single ferocious claim of Dr. Doyin Okupe’s lion.
Promptly, I came to the conclusion that my dilemma must be the typical problem that could momentarily paralyse the average columnists – sticking to a topic and avoiding getting lost in the maze of Nigeria’s ever changing ‘issues of the moment’. So I decided that I would stick to offering my professional opinion on Prof. Attahiru Jega’s kite that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was considering the introduction of electronic voting (Punch August 4, 2012).
INEC is a Nigerian government institution. For that simple reason, we must consider its actions and inactions as well as the projected consequences of both within the context of the Nigerian factor. Theoretically, electronic voting without any iota of doubt is a vital key to solving a reasonable portion of the problems associated with our elections. From issue of transparency to election induced violence orchestrated by thugs and highly prejudiced electoral umpires, electronic voting can help force these typical maladies into the dustbin of history. However, to make these objectives a reality, that is, to take attaining the goals of the introduction of electronic voting beyond mere theory and make them practical reality of the Nigeria electoral space requires that certain basic conditions must be met. Essentially, the only way the new system of electronic voting can achieve its intendment is if it is imbued with protective guidance and self-governing transparency regime that cannot be breached. How can this be achieved? What are the steps that must be put in place?
First I must dispel a popular myth against electronic voting, the assertion that Nigeria is not ready or ripe for electronic voting. This is a myth without ‘street credence’ or empirical evidence. There are two categories of proponents of this myth. The first category is made up of those who genuinely think Nigerians are so backward as to comprehend the use of what they consider super sophisticated technology. Those who belong to this group are sincere. The do not know. All they need is adequate education to make them understand what electronic voting is and how the absence of or lack of citizen sophistication is no barrier to its use. Once you let them realise that electronic voting is not as sophisticated as the ubiquitous Sharp calculator or the popular Nokia handsets and that we have successfully conducted online registration for WAEC examinations for over a decade as well as the reality that the staff that would attend to each electronic station would do the ‘difficult computing job’ (there is none) rather than abandoning each old person or unsophisticated voter to his or her fate on election day, you can get this category to ‘cooperate’.
To secure the support of the second category of people is however not that simple. This category is against electronic voting solely because it would undermine and impede its traditional capability and monopoly over the electoral processes – its ability to manipulate each step and outcomes. Of course nobody would admit that the reason for his protestation against electronic voting is because of a hidden agenda to preserve the status-quo. Something must be projected as an excuse and the easiest excuse is that ‘Nigerians are not ripe for electronic voting’. There is nothing that can be done to get this second category to support electronic voting. The reform must be driven against its adherents point blank!
That said, I must now go back to the earlier questions bordering on how we can ensure that we attain the gains of electronic voting rather than introducing same only for it to become a weapon in the hands of would be electoral manipulators. Yes, electronic voting can be manipulated! The very first step INEC must take is to develop a policy document and a legal framework for the protection and preservation of electronic voting system. This framework will enumerate the dos and don’ts of the entire process, protect the identity-related or primary data of individuals that would be in the custody of the agency, itemize the procedures for data validation in instances of dispute by providing scientific and fool-proof guidelines and procedures to be followed in courts or tribunals during adjudication as well as embed an unmatched regime of transparency that would confer credibility upon the electoral processes and the resultant dispute resolution phase. Imagine the impact this could have on election litigation by reducing period of judicial review from several months (some took years) to a few hours or days and the realisation by both petitioners and respondents that the processes involved in the adjudication of their electoral dispute are of unquestionable integrity. Such is the potential when the power of technology is properly harnessed (read more by me at http://tinyurl.com/c2pds7z).
The aforementioned are minimum critical requirements. Their absence was responsible for the directionless nature of INEC’s 2010/2011 electronic registration exercise such that INEC’s earlier promise of technology use as a major enhancer of free and fair election only ultimately played marginal role in the success of the elections whereas the public and the National Assembly’s tacit support for INEC’s N89billion budget was built around a technology enhanced fool-proof electronic register as the transformational elixir required to get identity verification right for the voting age and permanently ensure only real living people can vote and that only one legitimate vote can come from one genuine person for one particular candidate seeking one specific post.
INEC would however do a better job by developing this overall policy instrument and legal framework in conjunction with stakeholders, sister organizations like the Nigerian Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), the Nigerian Identity Management Agency, the Ministry of Justice and related professional institutions like the Nigerian Computer Society as well as the relevant division of the Nigerian Society of Engineers. Because of my peculiar experience as one of the pioneers (I use that word with all sense of modesty) in the application of electronic technology in managing enterprise and large public record using fingerprint identification system in Nigeria and who understands the distinctive ‘Nigerian factor’, I strongly advocate that for the policy document to accomplish its intended objective, it must expressly support an independent cross agency check and balance routine. It must also support independent people-driven regime of transparency, transparency affirmation and monitoring. In essence the system must not only grant absolute confidence to all stakeholders (citizens, political parties, law enforcement agencies, election monitors etc) that it is absolutely reliable, effective and beyond manipulation, it must been seen – and verifiably so – that it is doing just that. In theory and in practice, this is doable.
There is no doubt that electronic voting would bring a major change to the existing electoral system. Any such change must be matched by changes in the system as well as the processes involved, hence the reason for the policy stipulates and legal framework advocated above. Also, in order to eliminate the challenges occasioned by inadequate power supply and logistics, the new legal framework would benefit immensely if the voting period is altered from the current single day to a period of about 30 days to allow for early voting. You think this would encourage electoral malpractices? No, not if the systemic checks advanced above are in place and definitely not when people’s votes are truly being matched to their fingerprint minutiae! This will also have the multiple benefits of reducing the need for too many voting stations, introducing permanent voting stations in secure locations and enabling INEC to drive political parties to utilize such voting stations for the conduct of their primaries. A leadership that does not want to profit from or implicitly or tacitly promote election manipulations would embrace this.
Tunji is a chattered engineer and the pioneer Coordinator of the Ondo State Information Technology Development Centre (SITDEC). He is currently a Policy Chair of the National Development Initiative NDi (an independent think-tank with focus on Nigeria). NDi Project can be accessed at www.nd-i.org
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